There are any number of cliches that fit House Republican leader Tom DeLay these days. Perhaps the most appropriate is the warning about what might befall one who lives by the sword.
Certainly the Texan has used a sharp blade, despite his “Hammer” nickname, to cut a mighty swath through the lower chamber, rising from a button man (that Mafia term also seems fitting) to a take-no-prisoners capo as GOP whip to the under-boss second only to Speaker Dennis Hastert. During that rise, his enemies have multiplied about as quickly as his friends, many of whom, if they could be candid, would concede not only nervousness about his ability to survive an onslaught of questionable activities but also some degree of intimidation in their professed support.
In newspaper parlance, the word “beleaguered” probably should be placed before his name in any reference to him. But despite a mounting campaign by Democrats to prove he has played fast and loose with ethics, has broken a House regulation against accepting trips financed by lobbyists and may be in for a tough time from a grand jury in his home state that already has indicted a couple of his pals, it is difficult to know whether that is an apt description of his status.
For instance, he recently took the offensive, calling in reporters to deny any wrongdoing in connection with alleged lobbyist contributions that financed one of his overseas trips and his vote on a gambling bill. He said he is going to take the entire matter to the House ethics committee, which, by the way, has been adjusted to eliminate a couple of Republicans, including the chairman, who joined in admonishing him several times last year.
More importantly, however, were the 2,000 who showed up later in the day to hear him talk at a fund-raiser, greeting him warmly as a leader who can get things done. Anyone doubting that he still has considerable influence should have taken note.
When in doubt in this city, it is always best to attack the news media, excoriate the opposition party and claim utter innocence of ever using the same tactics, of breaking any rules, and, for that matter, of stealing from the church even if the steeple is sticking from your pocket. That, of course, is what DeLay did, charging that his attackers were involved in “partisan politics of personal destruction.”
In Washington, Tom? You have to be kidding. Clearly, you have never engaged in such activity.
It is always baffling that history seems to help very little in avoiding the political pitfalls that are everywhere in government. DeLay and his one-time mentor, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, rose to their stations by challenging the fast and loose behavior of those who had been running the institution for 40 years. Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, another Texan, fell _ a victim of his own questionable habits and book deals. Americans ultimately responded to all the examples of Democratic arrogance and questionable ethics and turned the Congress over to the Republicans. They embraced Gingrich and DeLay and company, who swept in with a contract of promised improvement.
So what happened? Those who had aimed so high and were so brutal in getting there suddenly found themselves targets, helped along by their own misuse of power. It took only a few terms for Gingrich to repeat the ethically challenged mistakes of Wright and be forced to resign and for DeLay to become as autocratic and insensitive to the minority, and often his own troops, as a succession of Democrats had been to his party. It is not an unfamiliar scenario. The Pilgrims fled religious persecution only to practice it here.
What is annoying in the current situation is how undisguised the use of force has been. Nothing seems to be too brazen to produce shame. Well, that’s not quite accurate. A move to protect DeLay’s job should he possibly be indicted was even too much to swallow for many Republicans and was abandoned.
One does not have to have been here overly long to anticipate the possibilities, not the least of which is one of those major quakes that shake the national legislature every so often. Old-time observers are betting that the cumulative impact and not any single thing ultimately may bring down DeLay. “Death by a thousand cuts” is the way one of his colleagues put it. If it occurs that way, once again he will be the victim of a cliched admonition he should have heeded.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)